My Own Private Guantanamo

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My Year in Writing

December 31, 2012

I’ve been an erratic blogger at best this past year. I credit this to an unusually heavy workload. I’m employed full time as a copywriter, and I also worked for two film festivals during the summer and fall. When I sit down to my computer, often the last thing I want to do is write. Instead, I log on to Twitter. Where Twitter used to be a source of creative energy– tweets leading to more substantive blog posts– lately it’s felt like a medium for avoiding deeper, harder work.

It’s very tempting for me, as a recovering performer, to treat Twitter as a performance that never ends. The timeline, with its endless spectacles, outrages and tangents constantly refreshes. When do I ever log out and try to pull together my thoughts? When do I ever read a real book? Will I ever pull the trigger on grad school?

2012 was the year I replaced my Facebook addiction with a Twitter addiction. In the near future, I might need to deploy some Self Control, if I ever hope to get much “real” writing done again.

While my blog has been sparse, I did manage to write in a few other venues in the past year. Here are some long overdue thoughts on that process.

Tits,” my blog post on gynecomastia and bullying, which first appeared here and on Jezebel last December, found its way to a much larger audience. It was re-posted on Sociological Images in March, translated into French for Rue89 in May and even appeared on the Good Men Project. This summer, the Guardian commissioned a modified version of the piece, which ran as a feature in their weekend supplement.

While I am very happy with the Guardian piece, I was initially worried they might present my article in a sensational way. The editors were insistent that I produce topless “before” and “after” photos to show the effects of the mastectomy on my appearance.

My mom and I set about looking for photos. After hours of searching through photo albums and scrapbooks, we couldn’t find a single photo of myself as an adolescent or teen which clearly showed my “man boobs.” This shouldn’t have been a surprise, since I was so ashamed of my body, I would have been unlikely to save any photo I considered unflattering.

What my mom did turn up was a truly strange and funny artifact– a photo of me dressed as Dolly Parton for Halloween (I have no idea which of my childhood friends was dressed as an Ewok, but I hope he stumbles upon this picture someday.) This photo was likely taken when I was 11 or 12, just a year before my gynecomastia became a source of bullying. I was still innocent enough to let it all hang out. I agreed to let the editors use the photo, on the condition that we add some context about how I was already using my body to comment on gender, long before I became a “performance artist.”

Photo courtesy of John Loomis

For the “after” photos, the editors hired John Loomis and arranged a shoot at the Standard hotel, standing in for my Hollywood apartment. We took several interesting photos using novelty “ideal body” T-shirts, but ultimately Loomis was hired to get the “after” shot, a kind of proof pic establishing that I’d had the surgery discussed in the article. I have been photographed naked on many occasions, usually unguarded during performances, yet there was something odd about this particular shoot, which required me to be shirtless. I don’t hate the photo they ran, but something about it feels clinical and detached.

The Guardian‘s focus on “before” and “after” photos seems to contradict the message of my article, which is about accepting bodies that don’t conform to the gender binary. If anything my  breasts are larger now than they were before the surgery. When I gained weight, they came back. In my years of weight cycling, my body has always returned to what I regard as its natural state. My body will be whatever it wants to be. No surgery and no diet can change this.

I cannot imagine the Guardian similarly publishing topless photos of a woman. Beyond this, I cannot imagine the Guardian asking an adult woman to send them topless photos from her adolescence to feature in its publication. In fact, the only way I could imagine a woman’s breasts being featured in this way would be for a story on breast cancer. But where mastectomy is often necessary to treat cancer, gynecomastia is a harmless variation in human bodies. By insisting on topless photos, the Guardian actually promoted the bogus medicalization of nonconforming bodies, and reinforced binarism.

In an unusual turn of events, the Guardian article got the attention of Playboy Radio, which invited me to appear on its morning show. Though I knew it would probably be sensationalistic, I agreed to be a guest. The interview initially made me squirm as the male host tried to make demeaning jokes. I quickly took control of the conversation and used my 25 minute slot to talk about bullying, binarism and the sexist doublestandards that are Playboy’s bread and butter (Listen to how defensive the hosts get.) I’m not sure I made the right call by agreeing to appear on Playboy’s morning freak show, but I’m happy with my performance.

In May, I wrote a post on Sacha Cohen’s movie The Dictator, which was reposted by the Overland Journal. I have nothing to add to what was written there, though I would like to recommend Daniel Ibn Zayd’s remarkable essay on Cohen and Arab minstrelsy, and Steven Salaita’s piece which more explicitly connects Cohen’s work to Zionism. The failure of liberal film critics to call out the obvious racism in Cohen’s portrayal was an early indicator that they’d also play dumb on the propagandistic Islamophobia of Zero Dark Thirty (more on this in a future post) and the yellowface in Cloud Atlas.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cohen seems emboldened by his latest excursion into Orientalist drag. So much so that he’s apparently chosen to play a Chinese man in his next film.

Just as I was finishing the article on Cohen,  the Overland Journal commissioned me to write an article on pornography for its print edition. Rather than write about mainstream porn, which is so often centered in discussion, I chose to write about people working independently or at the margins of the porn industry. I am indebted to Carlos Batts, April Flores, Buck Angel and maymay for agreeing to give such candid and thoughtful interviews, and to the Overland Journal for encouraging me to tackle an ambitious subject. While my essay only scratched the surface of the “alt porn” industry, I am happy to have met a handful of people working fearlessly with their bodies in the public eye. After finishing the piece, I learned about the unusual “ethical porn” project of Devon Hunter. For anyone interested in the subject, I recommend this interesting interview with Hunter in Salon.

My experience writing this piece, and working in the adult industry has confirmed for me that “sex positivity” is meaningless unless it is grounded in social justice and intersectional feminism. Diversity in representation and participation should be the bare minimum requirement. By this measure, most of the adult industry fails. But then again, by this measure, so does most of our culture.

Thanks for reading. I’m gonna go catch up on Twitter.

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